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Making Higher Education More Accessible and Affordable for Adults

Adult students are making their presence felt in today’s higher education arena and its time for institutions, governments and corporations to work harder to accommodate and incorporate non-traditional learners into colleges and universities. Photo by Mario.

The following interview is with Richard Novak, the Associate Vice President for Continuing Studies and Distance Learning, as well as the Director of Special Projects and Academic Affairs, at Rutgers University. Novak has a great amount of experience in adult higher education, having worked in the field for two decades and studied it extensively. In this Q&A, Novak discusses how institutions and governments could work together to make higher education more accessible and affordable for prospective and current adult students.

AA: In your experience, what are the most significant pains for adult students either considering entering, or engaged in, higher education?

RN: I think about this in terms of hurdles. Some people talk about barriers or pains but I think of three different types of hurdles that adult students go through to be engaged in higher education.

The first is a set of personal hurdles. Adult students need to be thinking about scheduling; how they work a new education program into their personal schedule. They need to make that commitment and that’s not a small thing. In my experience, there is personal reflection and soul-searching, planning that goes on before making that commitment. They need family support; if they have a family that is dependent on them or that they are engaged with, they need that family support to be able to continue and to persist as a learner in higher education. The last personal hurdle that I think many deal with comes in the area of determining their career goals and discerning which academic program is most appropriate for them and will provide the greatest reward.

The second set of hurdles that I see adult students facing is a set of institutional hurdles, beginning with program fit. Adults go through this “trying to discern which program works for them”, and then they need to find an institution that has a program that fits with what they’re looking for. An institution may not have an exact fit or a flexible enough program that meets adult student needs. It may be a very traditional institution in which case, “here’s the menu of offerings” and they’re very traditional and it doesn’t work for adults. Another institutional hurdle is scheduling. When are courses scheduled? When can they be offered, especially for adult students?

Cost; cost is a huge, huge institutional hurdle, as well as financing issues. The availability of courses; once an adult student makes a commitment and gets into a program, are courses available that they need to take? This is directly related to how long they need to be in that program and how much debt they’re going to incur financially. Another institutional hurdle is in the area of customer service. How adult-friendly is that institution? How welcoming to adult students?

The final bucket that I see is what I call a set of learning hurdles. I think that this is often overlooked and, in my experience this is a huge issue. Once adults have made this commitment… and now they’re in, there are huge learning hurdles for these adult students. Especially if they have been away from school for a long time. … They’re coming in already with apprehensions about whether or not they’re up to the task; can they perform well as a student? Are they competitive as a student? Study skills is another area… they need to get back in the cycle of, how do they plan their day? How do they set a rhythm so they can do the readings and the assignments that are part of their academic program? And the discipline to carry that through; adults are employees who study, rather than students who work. There are so many demands on their time and there are so many distractions. Being a student and really being successful in the learning space requires a discipline that certain things need to be set aside. That’s a skill that can be learned, but it’s certainly a challenge.

AA: Are higher education institutions currently well-suited to serve their adult student population?

RN: I think some institutions have made a real effort but I suspect that most probably have not. … One of the things we read about is many institutions realizing that adults are on their campus, that adults are in courses, that adults are becoming a majority presence and this is good for revenue purposes, this is good for keeping the seats filled, but I think I don’t read enough about reflection and strategies on how to address those three sets of hurdles we just talked about; personal, institutional and learning hurdles.

AA: What are a few changes most colleges and universities could implement to better serve their adult students?

RN: One should begin first with the obvious: I suspect that training and customer service, and recognizing adult students as a group that deserves respect and has earned respect is probably maybe even too obvious, but not taken seriously enough.

I think it terms of programming; one of the first things is flexibility in both scheduling and accessibility. That included things like the location; where are we offering courses? Are we driving everything to a main campus; where everyone must go to a main campus, and hunt for parking, and they must commit to the regular schedule. Or are we looking for ways to meet adult students were they are, out in the community? Do we have satellite offices? Do we have other locations where we might offer courses that fit in programs that are particularly attractive to adult students?

Time of week is an important consideration; I think early on with adult students some schools were looking at. “Okay, how do we offer evening courses for adults?” and we did these Monday-to-Friday evening courses. Well that’s not necessarily the most convenient or adult students because many adult students do shift-work, so just having courses in the evening doesn’t work for them. Some adult students can arrange for child-case during the day so day-courses are fine. But I think we need to think more broadly and we need to look at other options if we are really committed to adult students, and that includes looking at weekend options and Saturday courses and also consulting with the adult students who are attending and seeing what works best for them.

It’s a whole different orientation, I think it’s a shift from “this is what the institution has and you’re free to take part.” Or the institution has made a commitment to adult students and says “how can we better serve you? How can we help you succeed? How can we get you engaged?”

The last point on flexibility that I would offer is that we read a lot about the popularity of hybrid courses and I think they’re a wonderful invention. I think they do, in many cases and for many people, combine the best of both worlds. They have the face-to-face component and an online component and some students and, frankly, some faculty who are afraid of fully online courses have that safety net, they still have a face-to-face component in the course.

I want to challenge people to think about hybrid programs, not just courses. This I think can be a tremendous benefit for adult students as well, where part of their program is actually online, not just a course, and they can plan accordingly. This may include weekend-intensive courses and weekend-intensive programs. We’ve had some great success here at Rutgers in social work with a weekend-intensive social work degree. It’s been wildly popular and very, very successful with adult students.

Then I think there are some less obvious ways of being adult student-friendly. One of those might be consideration of child-care options for adult students. I think, going back to the learning hurdles that I talked about, I think doing things that provide study skill support for adults while respecting their adultness is really important. Promoting real-life, real-world examples in study so that the academic work that they’re doing marries theory and practice; it’s not all just theoretical, it’s not all just removed from their real-world experience. I think one of the keystones in good adult education is that we’re going to respect that adult experience and we’re going to draw out what kind of learning can be pulled out from those life experiences or work experiences.

I think another one that’s growing increasingly popular, and perhaps a little less obvious, is using social media to stay connected to adult students. One of the things that came out recently is the popularity of Facebook with adults. …There’s been this whole shift, especially with Facebook, and I think we can capitalize on that and think creatively about that.

I think there are two other areas of less obvious support for adult students. One is using some of the adaptive technologies that are now available, both to do some skills assessment for adults, to help them map to a correct academic program that suits their abilities and their career aspirations. The other use of adaptive technologies is for review and practice, and that will reinforce some of their learning and some of their skills.

I think the other thing is building up career services and career advisement that we do, but having it geared to adult students, not just traditional-age undergraduate students who are looking for their first job and have a resume that has nothing other than what summer job they worked at. I think that’s an area that’s sorely lacking and that we can really help adult students by building up.

AA: In terms of funding, higher education is receiving increasingly smaller portions of the budgetary pie than before. With rising unemployment and the crippling impact of long-term unemployment, what can institutions and governments do to ensure more adults are getting the education they need to re-enter the job market?

RN: This is really a critical issue. All of these ideas for programming and accessibility are wonderful, but if students cannot afford to attend, those ideas are going to go wanting.

Clearly, there need to be changes in the federal financial aid policies. We need changes to support part-time students. Too much of it is driven with sole-consideration of full-time students which, for many adult students, is just not reasonable. State financial aid policies, likewise, need to change because in most cases they’re simply following federal financial aid policies. I think we need a commitment both nationally as well as from individual states to funding higher education, especially providing support for adults. And the pressure can’t be simply cut from federal financial support to the state, and then the state cut their support to higher education institutions, and then they tell the institutions “don’t raise tuition so you can keep higher education affordable.” I think that’s just kicking the can down the road—that simply doesn’t work.

As I think about this, I think one of the things higher education can do, if we’re really making a commitment to adult students, and I think we need to be all in. This includes looking at all options; and there’s a whole bunch of work going on in employer assistance. We have seen that decline, I think we’re starting to see seeds of some employer assistance for higher education come back again, slowly.

I think we are in a great place in higher education institutions to demonstrate the salutary impact of an educated workforce and we can make a very convincing argument to an employer that, for every dollar you will spend on your employees’ education, you will get X dollars back in return. I think we need to work a little more closely with employers and it really is…a full cycle that we can do a better job of working with large-scale employers and determining need, and that can help shape some of our academic programs if we are willing to be flexible. Assisting students; determining what their skills are (where do they need help?) and providing those supports for those students who come in, working with employers to make sure they’re going to fund these adult students and they’re going to provide some flexibility…that allows students to study and be successful. Some of that may be actually inviting the higher education institution in to their corporate setting, their business, and providing facilities to hold classes and to provide flexible support for their adult students. I think that’s a very successful model.

All of those things, when we talk about the cost, I think we need to think not just the monetary cost but also the opportunity cost. I think, again, federal and state policies are going to directly impact the financial costs. I think working with employers is going to assist with some of the financial costs but, probably even more importantly, with the opportunity costs. And finally I think institutions themselves can look at ways of trying to hold down costs and doing a better job of looking at actual costs and how can they help make this affordable for adult students, whether it’s through aggressive payment plans, whether it is scholarship programs that are set up… I think all of these pieces need to work together to really help with the affordability of higher education for adult students.

AA: Is there anything you would like to add?

RN: I think adult students are such a powerful presence in higher education and I would like to see more done to support them. Anything we can do to support them; we all win.

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